Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Americans by Tejas Desai

Good Americans is an interesting if flawed collection of nine short stories plus an Introduction designed to promote the book and justify the author's publishing it through his own New Wei Literary Movement and Collective. According to his website, Desai, the son of Indian immigrants, graduated from the Queens College MFA program with a degree in creative writing and literary translation in 2009.

The stories include "Old Guido," a first-person account by an elderly bigot (he reminded me of a nasty Archie Bunker) of his involvement with a teenage Hispanic girl; "The Apprentice" in which an adjunct professor becomes entranced by a Chinese masseuse; "The Mountain" in which two old friends use the occasion of a hike to try to catch up and reconnect; "Malta: A Love Story" in three parts follows a much-abused southern girl and three college buddies—an African-American, an Indian-American, and a White-American; "Bridget's Brother" reports a dinner between three young people, one of whom particularly loathsome; and in "Dhan's Debut" a journalist pursues a charismatic lawyer. The title story, "Good Americans," told in the first person, dramatizes the last night of a crippled Iraq veteran.

These are stories primarily of young men who do drugs, hold marginal and dead-end jobs (although many of them are college graduates). I found the most convincing to be the sons of Indian immigrants and who are trying to be both good sons and make their way in this country. In the introduction, Desai writes in the persona of a literary agent who is presenting this book, "Here was a fresh voice from the darkest recesses of the soul, a racist against all races who was aware of his affliction but was unashamed...here was a portrait of a stained and scarred America, full of the guts and glory of our nation: of greed, racism, buffoonery, elitism, false honor, straight out of the pages of Mark Twain or a Sinclair Lewis novel, but set in the 21st century, today." Well, perhaps some reader will find that.

Unfortunately, others will find that the book badly needed an editor. It is wordy, and often unconvincing. I felt the characters were often doing things not because it was in their makeup to do them but because the author wanted them to do it to make a point. Sixty-five-year-old Riny at first has only contempt for 15-year-old Taina. Then he finds beaten and unconscious in a Queens park, and not only takes her home but eventually buys her a cell phone. When she initiates sex and offers her anus, Riny is too squeamish for that, but not too squeamish to find a condom and take her virginity. A southern sheriff tells the non-white college boys not to look too hard for the missing Malta: "This ain't your little college town. We still hear talk about lynchings here. And especially given you're looking for your white girlfriend, A definite no-no."

In any event, this is presented as Volume I of "The Human Tragedy" and with more experience, Desai will in future volumes be able to smooth some of his writing's rough edges while retaining the passion and vision.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt

Let me start with the information that can put certain readers off: Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt is not new; it was first published in 1981. It is a young adult novel; the POV character is a 13-year-old girl. There is no sex, no real violence, and no villains, vampires, zombies, or supernatural beings. Still interested?

Homecoming is still in print. It is (my opinion) an engaging, entirely plausible story that holds the reader's attention (this reader's attention) from page 1 to page 372. (Did I mention that it's a thick book, but one you don't want to end?)

In the book's third paragraph, the mother of Dicey Tiillerman, 13; James, 11; Maybeth, 9; and Sammy, 6, tells the children to be good and to listen to Dicey. She walks away from their old car and disappears into the crowd at a Peewauket, RI, shopping mall. Their father had walked out on their mother shortly after Sammy's birth and the family had been living in what sounds like a shack on Cape Cod. When their mother lost her job, she decided to take the children to their wealthy aunt in Bridgeport, but, we readers come to realize, she breaks down entirely in Peewauket and abandons her children.

I think that Voigt did something very, very difficult. She managed to create four children, all individual (Dicey is the resourceful one, James the smart one, Maybeth the shy, silent one, Sammy the stubborn one), put them in an extraordinary situation, and have them behave the way I am willing to believe these children would act in the circumstances.

Once Dicey realizes they've been abandoned—their mother has vanished and she's not coming back—she decides they will walk to Bridgeport to the aunt's house. Perhaps they'll find their mother already there. They have hardly any money (obtaining money is a recurring and realistic thread throughout the book), and the distance does not look so far on a road map. The first half of the book covers the children's adventures on the road and what happens when they actually reach their aunt's Bridgeport house. It is hardly a spoiler to tell you that the house is not the refuge the children had expected. Nor is it the hell another writer might have created. Voigt is too subtle and the situation is in some ways worse because it is so credible.

The challenges the children meet and the way they overcome them (or not) are all believable. They meet real dangers including well-meaning people who would, in fact, cause them harm. They also meet decent people who help them. In a way, I am sorry I could not have read Homecoming when I was a young teen because I would have known children just like Dicey, James, Maybeth, and Sammy and would have been reading the book under my covers with a flashlight because I didn't want to leave their company. Nevertheless, even as an adult I'm glad a friend recommended it and I did not simply dismiss it as being for kids.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong by Adam Matson

Adam Matson has published an interesting collection of short stories in Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong. He majored in cinema and photography at Ithaca College with a concentration in screenwriting and says he has written around a dozen feature-length screenplays.

The 19 stories in the collection—all of them I found interesting—sometimes reminded me of exercises, a writer's efforts to try out different forms, points of view, voices, possibilities. Some seemed very slight. "A Typical Day at the Office" describes in considerable detail J.P. Waterman's life as an "office drone;" he comes to his cubical, fills his day; and goes home. That's pretty much it.

A few of the stories are quite short; "Beneath the Overpass" is three printed pages that begin, "Every time I drive out of the city I see him. I turn onto the highway that will take me home. I glance down. Beneath the overpass I see him standing. Same place, every time." A real man? A statue? Or an illusion.

Matson has two stories, "The Yellow School Bus" and "The Man in the Green Car" that taps nicely into unreasoned panic. What is it like to be eight years old and watch the school bus slaughter your neighbor students as it comes to get you? What if you know you are being followed by a malevolent man as you leave your girlfriend's house sometime after midnight? Matson shows you.

Many of the stories are truly imaginative: While a number of skanky people glide through Dallas airport security, the TSA detains and harasses an innocent, productive Muslim passenger. A middle-aged man considering his life discovers that people he thought he remembered never existed. A professional poker-playing cheat gets into the wrong game. A young man who has a unusual relationship with fire almost kills his girlfriend and himself in trying to attract her attention.

The lead story, "Dream On," exemplifies the book's title. A middle-aged construction worker on his way back to his worksite in his pickup innocently offers a ride to a teen-age girl. He is only doing a good deed, but things go horribly wrong. I found the story so powerful I was not sure I wanted to read the rest of the book. As it turns out, I am glad I did.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Amazon reviews: Helpful or what?

I rarely look at Amazon reviews until I've read the book. After I've finished a book, I am curious to see whether—and how—other readers agree with my opinion and to learn why—and how—we disagree. This goes for whether I enjoyed the book or not. And I'm particularly interested in the top and bottom ratings. What is it about a book I thought was trash that other readers loved? And what is it about a book I loved (including books I've written) that some readers hated?

I've just finished a mystery by a debut author that I thought was extraordinarily weak. (The moment a character says, "I'll tell you [some key piece of information] in the morning," you know the next chapter will begin with the protagonist finding the character's cooling body.) I went to Amazon and looked at the 15 or 20 one-star reviews. I tended to agree with most of them including the person who wanted to know how a commercial publisher could have published such a waste of innocent trees. Interestingly, most of these critics wrote more than a one- or two-sentence dismissal of the book; they tried to suggest exactly why they did not care for it.

Which makes the more than 100 five-star reviews even more interesting. Without doing an actual count, it appears that the majority for this book are brief, generic, and essentially useless: "Thoroughly enjoyed the book." "Great read." "No plot holes."  "Great book." "Couldn't put it down." "Story was interesting." "Will look for the author's next book."

These, of course, tell you virtually nothing about the book, why the reader enjoyed it, or what she enjoyed about it. They are, in fact, all-purpose blurbs one could slap on any novel. Because there are so many of them and because they seem to follow a similar pattern, a cynical person might suspect they are not the considered opinions of readers who actually read the book. (I'm ignoring the whole issue of friends promoting friends' books.)

I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you! If you cannot trust the views of the people who post their views on Amazon, who can you trust?

My suggestion? Don't read the reviews until you've read the book.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tales from the Eternal Cafe by Janet Hamill

Janet Hamill has published five books of poetry; this collection of 17 short stories, Tales from the Eternal Cafe, is her first book of prose. Although, some of these are so short—only two or three pages—and so exquisite they could almost be considered prose poems.

Patti Smith in her introduction writes, "In the world of literature, the café has long served as a sanctuary for its conception as well as an escape from its blessed tyranny. In the tales offered here, one may picture the melancholic cafés of the nineteenth century, where the poet, drowned in obscurity, pens his masterpiece and downs his absinthe."

The stories, reflecting Hamill's globetrotting history, are set in Belgium, the Veneto, Turin, Rome, Cordoba, Tangiers, New York City, an abbey in the Pyrenees, Mexico, and India. They range in time from medieval France to today's Rome, and range widely in style and character, from first-person narration by Baudelaire's first publisher, to a letter from a writer who knows he is going mad, to a magical tale reminiscent of Héloïse and Abélard, to a fable of a girl chosen to be the bride the Water Spirit, the Great Python.

By the nature of any short story collection (and the tastes of individual readers) some stories seem stronger than others, some will appeal more than others. I thought the long story in the middle of the book, "Espresso Cinecittá"—a young woman press agent working on her movie director uncle's production of The Divine Comedy—a perfectly good story. Good enough to make me think that Hamill had personal experience with Italian cinema. But compared to the other stories in the book, it is not special, whereas many of the other stories are.

One example: "Ursula and the Sublime" begins with a faux academic introduction to the life and works of "Ursula Campion," a Romantic-era painter. The rest of the story consists of Campion's diary entries, snapshots that give quick glimpses of her life and loves. These are like quick pencil sketches and the reader has to fill in the details, which makes the story both rich and rewarding. A fascinating collection.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, born in 1952, is a Turkish novelist, screenwriter, and professor of comparative literature. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, and ten of his novels are available in English. I've been aware of his name for a long time (his first book published in the U.S., The White Castle, appeared in 1991) because he is a major literary figure who generally receives positive reviews, but until three weeks ago I'd never looked into one of his books.

I don't know if My Name is Red is the place to start because it is a rich, complex tapestry that spreads over nine days in Istanbul in 1591 and requires the reader's attention. Pamuk tells the story in an unusual fashion. A different voice narrates each chapter and the first, "I am a corpse" is that of a just-murdered illuminator who works on books commissioned by the Sultan, Refuge of the World. Other voices include a dog, a tree, a gold coin, death, the color red, a horse, and Satan. Certain voices central to the main story, of course, recur several times explaining, amplifying, observing the other characters and their actions.

Most of the human characters are miniaturists who specialize in Persian/Ottoman art: Horses, trees, flowers, leaves, human figures. One thread that runs through the book is the effect Western ("Frankish") painting will have/is having on traditional Islamic illuminated manuscripts. Do you paint the ideal world, the world as Allah sees it (a Platonic world of forms), or do you follow the Venetians and attempt to paint an individual, unique horse?

Another thread is the romance between Shekure, a presumed widow, and Black, who had loved her, left to make a career as a calligrapher and clerk, and returns twelve years later. Leaving his wife and two boys, Shekure's husband had gone off to the wars four years before the novel begins, has not been heard of since. How can Black marry her and bring her into his own house?

Then there is the murder that begins the book. The Sultan, who may have provoked the original killing because he commissioned a book to be illustrated in the European style (an affront to Allah), gives the workshop's master illustrator and Black three days to find the killer or he will use his own methods to solve the mystery: torture and beheading.

The novel, translated from the Turkish by Erdag M. Göknar and published by Knopf in 2001, does not read like a translation. Rather I found it to be fascinating introduction to a place, a time, society, and a culture about which I know virtually nothing. It is a world of religious tension. of coffeehouse storytellers, go-betweens, and devotion to an artistic tradition that is about to be swept away.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Death in Venice, California by Vinton Rafe McCabe

Full disclosure: Vinton is a friend of mine. We have been members of the same writer's group for several years. I watched this book evolve from first draft to final manuscript. He began it as a NaNoWriMo project and, I believe, had essentially finished it before the November 30 deadline with several thousand words to spare.

It takes off from, of course, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and if you are familiar with Mann's book, Vinton's book will be that much richer an experience. But you don't need to know Mann, to appreciate the extraordinary experience of Death in Venice, California.

In Jameson Frame, Vinton has created a man of letters who is nearing the end of his alphabet. Jameson's reputation is based on three books, "Pennyweight," which was "largely allegorical and altogether humorless"; "The Antecedents," which was "his rather exhaustive and thoroughly sordid telling of his family history"; and "On Scrimshaw and Others," a slim volume of poetry elegantly published by a university press. Now in his mid-forties, with an independent income, and buffeted by New York crowds and winter weather, Jameson decides to treat himself to a sun-filled respite by the sea and flies to California.

In Venice, Jameson meets Elsa and Vera on the beach, a couple of bohemian housemates. They seem to find him enchanting and invite him to one of their wine-and-marijuana parties. They promote a relationship with Chase, a skateboarding nude-and-underwear model, who is lovely and who knows it. As Vinton writes: "If the source of his shifting personal power lay in his eyes, the source of the Nile that was his beauty was in his lips. Lips that countered everything else on his face. Full, feminine lips that pouted and purred, that were colored a perfectly, ridiculously pinkish pink, and shaped in a flapper's cupid's blow. Placed within the context of his dark masculinity—the purest white skin set against jet black hair that disappeared, along with the inky mesh of his scruff, in the night—the pinky pink lips, a set that might have been dubbed kissable in a television commercial were they located in a teen-aged blonde's face, were utterly, shockingly, endlessly enchanting when placed within the hard-jawed face of the youth."

Jameson is besotted by Chase who, apparently, sees the older man as an open wallet and a figure on which he can scrawl his own mark. In one of their first outings together, Jameson returns to his luxury beach-front hotel with a tattooed "V" on his leg. By the end of the book, Jameson is even willing to participate in Chase's "Big Art"—pornographic videos.

Death in Venice, California is, as suggested by the paragraph I quoted above, wonderfully visual; I marvel at the writing. It is also, I believe, a profoundly sad and moving story, the portrait of a man who either does not know himself or does not care what happens to him as long as he can indulge in a a beauty that can only bring his destruction. No matter. Even if Vinton were not my friend, I would recommend the book.